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On Movies: 'The Hurt Locker' makes clear war's pain

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2009 - "War is a drug," wrote war correspondent Chris Hedges. That provocative quote leads us into the intense, hair-trigger suspense of "The Hurt Locker," a riveting, thought-provoking new movie about an Army bomb disposal unit in Iraq.

"The Hurt Locker" is superbly directed by Kathryn Bigelow ("Near Dark," "Point Break"), whose visually striking action movies are always interesting, if sometimes flawed by plot absurdities or stylistic excesses. This time, she gets everything right.

It's the summer of 2004, and Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) arrives on the urban battlefield of Baghdad to head up a small unit that has been trained to disable or harmlessly detonate Improvised Explosive Devices. IEDs have killed thousands of Americans and Iraqis, including, we learn, James' predecessor. Unit members J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) nervously await their new leader's initial encounter with an elusive and deadly enemy.

A homemade bomb has been detected half-buried in a Baghdad street and soldiers are waiting a block away for the bomb unit to do its work. Instead of approaching the bomb cautiously, trying to analyze or trigger the device using remote controlled robots, James immediately climbs into an armored suit and strides toward the bomb, prepared to disable it by hand. We already have been shown that the armor will not prevent the death of its wearer from an explosion at close range.

James' comrades in the bomb unit are stunned, and fearful -- the last thing they want is a reckless daredevil in charge. They only have 38 days left before the end of their tour, and they want to make it through literally in one piece.

Even after James succeeds in disabling the bomb with a pair of pliers, his fellow soldiers worry that his derring-do will get them killed. One member of the unit suggests to another that they might be better off if James were somehow eliminated -- "fragged" in the terminology of Vietnam.

But, as the days left in the unit's tour of duty tick down and James successfully defuses more bombs, the soldiers realize that the sergeant, while seemingly reckless, is an accomplished craftsman at his job. Perhaps, they decide, James' seemingly incautious approach will help them survive. After all, he is still alive and his predecessor is dead.

After an air-clearing tussle between James and Sanborn, the men become a more cohesive unit. Director Bigelow brings a compelling sense of non-judgmental realism to the complicated rituals of an all-male combat unit. She is helped greatly by good, mostly understated acting in the lead roles and by the taut and believable script by Mark Boal, a writer who spent months embedded in a bomb squad in Iraq.

As the movie shows us with chilling effectiveness, it's not just a lack of caution that can get you killed in modern guerilla warfare. Everything can get you killed. Even the bomb-disposal unit's robots sometimes malfunction, increasing rather than decreasing the danger.

Enemies are everywhere, yet seemingly nowhere. The heads of the soldiers are constantly bobbing about, like anxious prey birds on the lookout for predators, checking the rooftops and the alleys and the mosques and the houses, looking for snipers or for men (or women or children) with bombs or bomb-triggering devices. Perhaps not since "Platoon" (1986) has a war movie so successfully conveyed the sense of a soldier being surrounded by unseen enemies, by necessity always on alert, suspicious of everyone and everything, his finger always on the trigger.

"The Hurt Locker" gives the viewer a dramatic understanding of how difficult a task has been presented to American soldiers in Iraq, and indeed in most of the wars and battles of the past four decades, wars in which, from the jungles of Vietnam to the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, there are no front lines and no easy way to tell friends and noncombatants from dangerous enemies. When Sgt. James thinks an Iraqi boy he befriended has been killed, perhaps in an attempted suicide bombing, for a time he goes berserk. The point is clear: Our soldiers are empathetic human beings placed in the midst of wars that are almost impossible to fight without civilian casualties.

That is not to say it that "The Hurt Locker" is politically rigged or stuffed full of dialectic like, say, "The Valley of Elah." It is a war movie, not an anti-war movie, although it is hard to imagine most people in the audience deciding war is a good thing after seeing "The Hurt Locker." But the main protagonist is a warrior, a man who sees himself at his best and at his most alive during battle. That is both his blessing and his curse.

"The Hurt Locker" is that apparent paradox: a thoughtful action movie, one of the few films of the past several decades that truly succeeds in putting us in the middle of modern warfare. Without cliched MTV-style extreme close-ups and overly fast cutting, using both long shots and long takes when appropriate, director Bigelow and British cinematographer Barry Ackroyd ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley") propel us into the middle of the action in a way that modern war movies rarely have done.

As the movie shows us, for some soldiers war is indeed a narcotic, one they are compelled to return to time and time again. James is irresistibly drawn to combat, the way a junkie is drawn to crack or heroin. His hormonal drug of choice is adrenalin. But "The Hurt Locker" does more than demonstrate that premise. It brings the war home, and forces us to think about the deadly choices young men in battle fatigues are forced to make every day.

A final note on the title. Nothing in the movie, nor in the coverage I have seen of the movie, explains the phrase "hurt locker" beyond suggesting that it means a bad place to be.

A friend of mine who graduated from West Point in the Vietnam era used the phrase "in a hurt locker" to describe someone who was in a world of trouble with no easy way to get out. I asked him about the phrase, and he explained that at West Point when one cadet was goofing off and got into trouble, his whole squad or platoon got into trouble, and found themselves marching in the sleet in full combat gear at 4 in the morning.

If the goof-off was a repeat offender, one way to deal with him was to get hold of a box of really pungent cigars, grab the offending cadet, force him into a metal wall locker and blow cigar smoke into the locker through the metal vents and pound on the sides until the guy was screaming to be let out. The screw-up was "in a hurt locker," like the soldiers in this memorable new movie.

Opens Friday, July 24.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.